SPORTS

Football in spring

Montreal fans welcomed the World League

JAMES DEACON April 15 1991
SPORTS

Football in spring

Montreal fans welcomed the World League

JAMES DEACON April 15 1991

Football in spring

SPORTS

Montreal fans welcomed the World League

Before the Montreal Machine played its first home game last week, executives of the new World League of American Football team cautiously predicted that the event in Montreal’s 54,600-seat Olympic Stadium would attract about 25,000 people. The estimate took account of 10,000 tickets that had been distributed free with a gasoline purchase at Ultramar Canada Inc. service stations. But following the team’s March 23 victory in Alabama over the Birmingham Fire, sales of tickets, ranging in price from $10 to $25, took off in Montreal. And when the maroon-and-silver-clad Machine stepped onto the field against Spain’s Barcelona Dragons on April 1, 53,238 fans roared their welcome to spring football in a city that dropped out of the Canadian Football League four years ago. It was the biggest crowd in the two-week history of the fledgling, 10-team WLAF and one of the largest at Olympic Stadium for a sporting event in a decade.

Montreal lost 34-10, but not before quarterback Kevin Sweeney led the team to an early 10-0 lead. And the turnout was a victory for Machine president Roger Doré, a former Laba tt Brewery Ltd. marketing executive who

bought the $12.7-million franchise with $1.2 million down after securing a 20-year, nointerest loan for the balance with the league. Before the game, said Doré, “I thought a crowd of 35,000 would be close to a miracle.” Doré added that the opening-game crowd could help to convince companies to buy sponsorships with the team, whose games are being televised by Toronto-based The Sports Network and its French-language station, RDS. Still, skeptics of the new league pointed to the fact that, throughout its March-to-early-June season, the Machine will compete against the city’s established professional teams—the National League Expos baseball team and the Canadiens of the National Hockey League, which stages its playoffs in April and May.

The new league has the financial clout of a two-year, $58-million television deal with the ABC television network and the USA Network, both based in New York City. Aimed at filling a gap in the networks’ spring sports coverage and capitalizing on the growing interest in American football in Europe, the league was incorporated in October, 1989. It was formed by owners of 26 of the 28 National Football League teams in the United States and oper-

ates franchises in Birmingham, Orlando, Fla., New York-New Jersey, RaleighDurham, N.C., Sacramento, Calif., and San Antonio, Tex., as well as London, Frankfurt and Barcelona.

The league has an unusual financial structure that WLAF officials say should protect it from the financial pitfalls that have crippled some new sports ventures in the past. Under the franchise agreements, the league will pay for all travel and on-field expenses, including players’ and coaches’ salaries, out of television revenues and league sponsorships. The players, most of whom failed to make NFL or CFL rosters, will be paid between $17,000 and $29,000 per season. Team I owners pay for stadium leases and administrative costs out of gate receipts, corporate sponsorships of the teams and stadium concessions. Said league vice-president Joseph Bailey: “We have designed this league so that it puts every franchise into a potential profit situation in its first year of operation.”

Still, some experts predicted that gate receipts might decline when the novelty of the new league wears off. Montreal and the league’s three European entries—the London Monarchs, the Frankfurt Galaxy and Barcelona—all exceeded league officials’ gate expectations in their first home games. In London, the Monarchs’ opener drew 46,952 fans at Wembley Stadium, nearly 10,000 more than the same weekend’s biggest soccer crowd in England, while both Frankfurt and Barcelona attracted about 20,000 fans in their first home games. But in Birmingham, attendance declined sharply to only 16,500 at the team’s second home game from 53,000 fans at the club’s home opener.

Despite Montreal’s roster of mostly unknown American players, Doré claimed that the Machine will have a strong appeal to Quebecers. Doré and his head coach, Jacques Dussault, are both francophone Quebecers, and the general manager, Gordon Cahill, is from Gaspé, Que. As well, Chris Flynn, the Machine’s third-string quarterback, is a Buckingham, Que., native who won three Hec Creighton trophies as Canada’s top university football player while attending St. Mary’s University in Halifax. Still, the Machine has not diminished Montreal’s appeal to the CFL, league commissioner Donald Crump told Maclean ’s. He said that a group of potential backers is interested in putting a CFL team back in Montreal, and has held talks with city officials. For the time being, though, Montrealers appeared to be infatuated with their new, American-style football club.

JAMES DEACON